Woods, Nicklaus, Hogan, Etc.: Who Is the Greatest Golfer of All Time?

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistNovember 6, 2012

DUBLIN, OH - JUNE 03:  Tiger Woods watches a tee shot as Jack Nicklaus looks on during a skins game prior to the start of the Memorial Tournament at the Muirfield Village Golf Club on June 3, 2009 in Dublin, Ohio.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Yesterday afternoon a friend of mine asked me an incredibly broad yet common question: Who did I think is the greatest golfer of all time?

My mind immediately began racing towards the two obvious choices: Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

But, before I could even get the words of out my mouth, a brief moment of enlightenment came over me—which, let me tell you, is quite rare—and I began to ask myself how we even define the greatest golfer of all time.

If we are looking at a player’s accomplishments over the course of an entire career, than Nicklaus and his 18 major championships would be considered by most to be the greatest.

But if we are looking at players that completely dominated the game for a long period of time (not just a year or two), well, then we would be looking at guys like Woods, Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan. In terms of pure dominance, we could also go back as far as Harry Vardon and even Young Tom Morris.

Morris won four consecutive Open Championships in the late 1860s and early 1870s and was said to have almost never lost a challenge match, prior to his untimely death in 1875 due to a heart attack.

Vardon managed to win seven majors while really only having the opportunity to play in the Open Championship (he played in just three U.S. Opens, winning in 1900). Had Vardon had four major championships to compete in, as would be the case today, it’s not unreasonable to assume that he might have won at least 14 majors.

How about Byron Nelson?

Nelson won 52 PGA Tour events and five majors in a span of really just nine years, including his 1945 season, where he won 11 events in a row and 18 in total.

And then we have Walter Hagen. Hagen is credited with winning 11 majors, but during Hagen’s prime there was no Masters and the Western Open was considered by most to be a major championship. So, if you add in Hagen’s five Western Open victories, it brings his major championship total to 16, two ahead of Woods and just two behind Nicklaus, most of which Hagen accomplished during a span of just 15 years.

Things brings up yet another important question: how long is a reasonable period of time through which to evaluate a player?

There was a brief period of time in the 1970s when Johnny Miller might have played some of the best golf the world has ever seen.

Arnold Palmer completely dominated the game from 1958–1962.

Then we come down to individual years.

Was Woods the greatest golfer of all-time between 2000 and 2001?

How about Nelson in 1945?

Hogan in 1953?

Nicklaus in 1972 and 1973?

Palmer in 1960?

And of course, Jones in 1930?

And How about pure skill?

If we are talking about the greatest ball-strikers to have ever played the game we’d look towards guys like Hogan and Snead long before we would look to guys like Woods and Nicklaus.

All of these thoughts were tossed around my head within the matter of just a few seconds before coming up with my ultimate answer to my good friend’s question: I don’t know.

When it comes to golf there really is no clear-cut answer to the question of who is the greatest golfer of all time.

There are so many different variables and means of evaluating players and greatness that it ultimately comes down to nothing more than pure opinion.  

Someone who had seen Jones play in 1930 might say that he was the best golfer they have ever seen.

Someone who saw Hogan play in 1953 might say that he was the best ball-striker the game of golf has ever seen.

Someone watching Woods in 2000 and 2001 might say that no one has ever dominated the game like that before.

So, who is the greatest player to have ever played the game…well, it all comes down to how you personally evaluate greatness in golf.  

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